Sunday Movie Night: À bout de Souffle [Breathless] (1960)

Hey it’s Sunday again. As I often do, Sunday nights are when I force myself to just sit my ass down, ignore technology for an hour or two (or three if it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film), and just watch a damn movie. Since I was in high-school, the art of film has been a huge passion for me. I like all sorts of movies really, but super opinionated about what I will actually take the time to sit down and watch. So yeah, I guess you could say that I’m a bit of film-snob. A couple week’s ago, a friend of mine asked me what movie I could watch over and over again without tiring of it. Took me all but maybe three minutes to decide on this one, and this is what I’m watching tonight again for probably the 100th time or so.
Via Wikipedia (My commentary is italicized. Left a lot of Wiki details in this post because they are of critical import to understanding how groundbreaking and special this film is)
Breathless (French: À bout de souffle; “out of breath”) is a 1960 French film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard about a wandering criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). It was Godard’s first feature-length work and represented Belmondo’s breakthrough as an actor.

Breathless was one of the earliest, most influential examples of French New Wave (nouvelle vague) cinema. Together with François Truffaut‘s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais‘s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, both released a year earlier, it brought international acclaim to this new style of French filmmaking. At the time, the film attracted much attention for its bold visual style, which included unconventional use of jump cuts.

Let’s start the movie!


[Background and writing]

Breathless was loosely based on a newspaper article that Truffaut read in The News in Brief. The character of Michel Poiccard is based on real-life Michel Portail and his American girlfriend and journalist Beverly Lynette. In November 1952 Portail stole a car to visit his sick mother in Le Havre and ended up killing a motorcycle cop named Grimberg.

Truffaut worked on a treatment for the story with Chabrol, but they ended up dropping the idea when they could not agree on the story structure. Godard had read and liked the treatment and wanted to make the film. While working as a Press Agent at 20th Century Fox, Godard met producer Georges de Beauregard and told him that his latest film was shit. De Beauregard hired Godard to work on the script for Pêcheur d’Islande. After six weeks Godard became bored with the script and suggested making Breathless instead. Chabrol and Truffaut agreed to give Godard their treatment and wrote de Beauregard a letter from the Cannes Film Festival in May 1959 agreeing to work on the film if Godard directed it. Truffaut and Chabrol had recently become star directors and their names secured financing for the film. Truffaut was credited as the original writer and Chabrol as the technical adviser. Chabrol later claimed that he only visited the set twice and Truffaut’s biggest contribution was persuading Godard to cast Liliane David in a minor role. Fellow New Wave director Jacques Rivette appears in a cameo as the dead body of a man hit by a car in the street.

K. Holy crap, in everything I have ever read about this film, including the 90 page book that came with my Criterion Collection DVD, I did not know that the plot was somewhat inspired by an actual story from a newspaper. Crazy. Francois Truffaut is also an excellent and groundbreaking filmmaker. I should watch more of his stuff when I get a chance.   

Godard wrote the script as he went along. As well as the real-life Michel Portail, Godard based the main character on screenwriter Paul Gégauff, who was known as a swaggering seducer of women. Godard also named several characters after people he had known earlier in his life when he lived in Geneva. The film includes a couple of in-jokes as well: the young woman selling Cahiers du Cinéma on the street (Godard had written for the magazine), and Michel’s occasional alias of László Kovács, the Hungarian-American cinematographer who would become famous for Five Easy Pieces and other films.

Jean-Paul Belmondo had already appeared in a few feature films prior to Breathless, but he had no name recognition outside of France at the time Godard was planning the film. In order to broaden the film’s commercial appeal, Godard sought out a prominent leading lady who would be willing to work in his low-budget film. He came to Jean Seberg through her then-husband, Francois Moreuil, with whom he had been acquainted. Seberg agreed to appear in the film on June 8, 1959, for $15,000, which was one-sixth of the film’s budget. Godard ended up giving Seberg’s husband a small part in the film. During the production, Seberg privately questioned Godard’s style and wondered if the film would be commercially viable. After the film’s success, she collaborated with Godard again on the short Le Grand Escroc, which revived her Breathless character.

A few things about the two lead actors in this film. Jean Paul Belmondo, although he plays a massive douche in this film, he is an outstanding actor. He went on to be in other Godard films, and led a lifelong career as an actor, aged gracefully, then just sorta went away. Spitting image of a classic movie star, but it still seems to me that he is somewhat unknown, at least in the U.S. For some reason, I love the Humphrey Bogart references in Breathless, because Michel (Belmondo) identifies him self with a movie star. I just find that interesting. Anyways, the about the girl:



Patricia is played by Jean Seberg, an american actress. Aside from being mind blowingly gorgeous, she kills it in this film. We start off watching a rude criminal jerk face for fifteen minutes and then all of a sudden there’s an adorable pixie haired girl walking down the middle of the street in Paris selling the New York Herald Tribune. Sold. That said, the real life story of Seberg is very strange and sad. Actually, it’s fascinating and I believe there is a biopic about her life in the works. Here’s the summary of how crazy this woman’s life was:

After gaining popularity in the US and Europe as an actress she became notoriously associated with the Black Panther Party, the NAACP, and other organizations related to African American causes. via the wiki…

During the late 1960s, Seberg provided financial support to various groups supporting civil rights, such as the NAACP and Native American school groups such as the Meskwaki Bucks at the Tama settlement near her home town of Marshalltown, for whom she purchased US$500 worth of basketball uniforms. The FBI was upset about several gifts to the Black Panther Party, totalling US$10,500 (estimated) in contributions; these were noted among a list of other celebrities in FBI internal documents later declassified and released to the public under FOIA requests. The financial support and alleged interracial love affairs or friendships are thought to have been triggers to a large-scale FBI program deployment in her direction.

The FBI operation against Seberg used COINTELPRO program techniques to harass, intimidate, defame, and discredit Seberg. The FBI’s stated goal was an unspecified “neutralization” of Seberg with a subsidiary objective to “cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the public”, while taking the “usual precautions to avoid identification of the Bureau”. FBI strategy and modalities can be found in FBI inter-office memos.

In 1970, the FBI created the false story, from a San Francisco-based informant, that the child Seberg was carrying was not fathered by her husband Romain Gary but by Raymond Hewitt, a member of the Black Panther Party. The story was reported by gossip columnist Joyce Haber of The Los Angeles Times. and was also printed by Newsweek magazine.[26] Seberg went into premature labor and, on August 23, 1970, gave birth to a 4 lb (1.8 kg) baby girl. The child died two days later. She held a funeral in her hometown with an open casket that allowed reporters to see the infant’s white skin which disproved the rumors. Seberg and Gary later sued Newsweek for libel and defamation and asked for US $200,000 in damages. Seberg contended she became so upset after reading the story, that she went into premature labor, which resulted in the death of her daughter. A Paris court ordered Newsweek to pay the couple US$10,800 in damages and also ordered Newsweek to print the judgment in their publication plus eight other newspapers.

The investigation of Seberg went far beyond the publishing of defamatory articles. According to her friends interviewed after her death, Seberg experienced years of aggressive in-person surveillance (constant stalking), as well as break-ins and other intimidation-oriented activity. These newspaper reports make clear that Seberg was well aware of the surveillance. FBI files show that she was wiretapped, and in 1980, The Los Angeles Times published logs of her Swiss wiretapped phone calls. U.S. surveillance was deployed while she was residing in France and while travelling in Switzerland and Italy. Per FBI files the FBI cross-contacted the “FBI Legat” (legal attachés) in U.S. Embassies in Paris and Rome and provided files on Seberg to the CIA, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Military intelligence to assist monitoring while she was abroad.

FBI records show that J. Edgar Hoover kept U.S. President Richard Nixon informed of FBI activities related to the Jean Seberg case via President Nixon’s domestic affairs chief John Ehrlichman. John Mitchell, then Attorney General, and Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst were also kept informed of FBI activities related to Seberg.

Anyways, that happened, then…

On the night of August 30, 1979, Seberg mysteriously disappeared. Her partner Ahmed Hasni told police that they had gone to a movie that night and when he awoke the next morning, Seberg was gone. After Seberg went missing, Hasni told police that he had known she was suicidal for some time. He claimed that she had attempted suicide in July 1979 by jumping in front of a Paris subway train,

On September 8, nine days after her disappearance, her decomposing body was found wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of her Renault, parked close to her Paris apartment in the 16th arrondissement. Police found a bottle of barbiturates, an empty mineral water bottle and a note written in French from Seberg addressed to her son. It read, in part, “Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves.” Her death was ruled a suicide by the police.

Back to the movie. 


Godard envisaged Breathless as a reportage (documentary), and tasked cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot the entire film on a hand-held camera, with next to no lighting. In order to shoot under low light levels, Coutard had to use Ilford HPS film, which was not available as motion picture film stock at the time. He therefore took 18-metre lengths of HPS film sold for 35mm still cameras and spliced them together to 120-metre rolls. During development he pushed the negative one stop from 400 ASA to 800 ASA. The size of the sprocket holes in the photographic film was different than the sprocket holes for motion picture film, and the Cameflex camera was the only camera that would work for the film used.

At this point I fee like I should apologize for including all of these nerdy Wikipedia film facts, but this is basically all that I think about when I watch this movie so, yeah. Jump cuts. I believe this was mentioned somewhere above. We’ve all seen them by now, but Godard basically invented the technique. The way he uses them in this film gives it such a strangely beautiful pace that I don’t even want to look away from my TV or I’ll miss something. It’s wonderful, and totally drives the story forward. The soundtrack is so-so though. Just sayin. 

Filming began on August 17, 1959. Godard met his crew at the Notre Dame Cafe near the Hôtel de Suède and shot for two hours until he ran out of ideas. Coutard has stated that the film was virtually improvised on the spot, with Godard writing lines of dialogue in an exercise book that no one else was allowed to look at. Godard would give the lines to Belmondo and Seberg while having a few brief rehearsals on scenes involved, then filming them. No permission was received to shoot the film in its various locations (mainly the side streets and boulevards of Paris) either, adding to the spontaneous feel that Godard was aiming for. However, all locations were picked out before shooting began and Assistant Director Pierre Rissient has described the shoot as very organized. Actor Richard Balducci has stated that shooting days ranged from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had that day. Producer Georges de Beauregard wrote a letter to the entire crew complaining about the erratic shooting schedule. Coutard claims that on a day that Godard had called in sick de Beauregard bumped into the director at a cafe and the two got into a fist fight.

Godard shot most of the film chronologically, with the exception of the first sequence, which was shot towards the end of the shoot. Filming at the Hôtel de Suède for the lengthy bedroom scene between Michel and Patricia included a minimal crew and no lights. This location was difficult to secure, but Godard was determined to shoot there after having lived at the hotel after returning from South America in the early 1950s. Instead of renting a dolly with complicated and time-consuming tracks to lay, Godard and Coutard rented a wheelchair for the film that Godard often pushed himself. For certain street scenes Coutard would hide in a postal cart with a hole in it for the lens and stamped packages piled on top of him. Shooting lasted for 23 days and ended on September 12, 1959. The final scene where Michel is shot in the street was filmed on the rue Campagne-Première in Paris.

Raoul Coutard (cinematographer) said that “there was a panache in the way it was edited that didn’t match at all the way it was shot. The editing gave it a very different tone than the films we were used to seeing. The film’s use of jump cuts has been called innovative. Andrew Sarris analyzed it as existentially representing “the meaninglessness of the time interval between moral decisions.” Rissient said that the jump cut style was not intended during the film’s shooting or the initial stages of editing.

That’s all of the nerdiness, I promise. wait. One scene I’m watching now. Just one long take, about 2 minutes long of an argument between Patricia and Michel. I just love how this movie has a rhythm, if that makes any sense.  

[Plot] | Spoilers:

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a youthful criminal who is intrigued with the film persona of Humphrey Bogart. After stealing a car in Marseille, Michel shoots and kills a policeman who has followed him onto a country road. Penniless and on the run from the police, he turns to an American love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist, who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris. The ambivalent Patricia unwittingly hides him in her apartment as he simultaneously tries to seduce her and call in a loan to fund their escape to Italy.


At one point, Patricia says she is pregnant with Michel’s child. She learns that Michel is on the run when questioned by the police. Eventually she betrays him, but before the police arrive she tells Michel what she has done. He is somewhat resigned to a life in prison, and does not try to escape at first. The police shoot him in the street and, after a prolonged death run, he dies “à bout de souffle” (out of breath).

Michel’s death scene is one of the most iconic scenes in the film, but the film’s final lines of dialogue are the source of some confusion for English-speaking audiences. In some translations, it is unclear whether Michel is condemning Patricia, or alternatively condemning the world in general.

As Patricia and Detective Vital catch up with the dying Michel, they have the following dialogue:

MICHEL: Ch’uis vraiment dégueulasse.
PATRICIA: Qu’est ce qu’il a dit?
VITAL: Il a dit que vous êtes vraiment “une dégueulasse”.
PATRICIA: Qu’est-ce que c’est “dégueulasse”?

In the English captioning of the 2001 Fox-Lorber Region One DVD, “dégueulasse” is translated as “scumbag”, producing the following dialogue:

MICHEL: It’s disgusting, really.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said, “You’re a real scumbag”.
PATRICIA: What’s a scumbag?

The 2007 Criterion Collection Region One DVD uses a less literal translation:

MICHEL: Makes me want to puke.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said you make him want to puke.
PATRICIA: What’s that mean, “puke”

Just some screenshots…


Well, I just finished watching Breathless for maybe the 101st time. I still love it, and I hope the examples that I pointed out explains why. I could sit here and write for another hour about how much this film means to me, but hey, it is Sunday and I have work tomorrow. 

Score for  À bout de Souffle (Breathless) [10/10] Because FIN.


One thought on “Sunday Movie Night: À bout de Souffle [Breathless] (1960)

  1. One of the most intriguing film reviews I have ever read. Your passion for the films of Jean-luc Belmondo is contagious especially “Breathless” . Please do not stop publishing and sharing your knowledge and love for films!!

    Love, Mom

    Sent from my iPhone



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